When I was a teenager, I went through a brief phase where I was obsessed with the 1960s. I read, watched, wore and listened to anything to do with that era. And by that, I mean I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s, wore frosty, pink lipstick and listened to the Beatles.
I was convinced that I should have been alive during the height of Twiggy, Andy Warhol and all those other stereotypical ’60s figureheads. The words “I was born in the wrong era” probably came out of my mouth at one point or another.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn’t really care about or understand the ethos of the 1960s—I just liked some of the stuff. I co-opted certain external markers of that era and used them to define my own millennial experience.
Because I didn’t understand the context of the era, I probably definitely sounded like an idiot when I would say things like, “George Harrison is the best Beatle” and “Oh my god, I just love mod fashion.” I know, I know. Infuriating, right?
Crow Hollow by Michael Wallace is the literary equivalent of my Hepburn phase.
Set in Boston at the end of the 17th century, Crow Hollow is the story of James Bailey, a weirdly standoffish agent of the crown and wannabe colonial James Bond, and Prudence Cotton, a widow who was taken hostage by the Nipmuk tribe along with her young daughter during King Philip’s War.
Benjamin Cotton, Prudence’s husband, was tortured and killed by The Natives. Prudence escaped, though her daughter remained a captive and was presumed dead by Prudence’s uptight family.
James comes to Boston to investigate the suspicious death of Prudence’s husband, who happened to be another agent of the crown. Prudence wants James’s help tracking down her daughter, who she believes is still alive even though everyone around her is like: seriously, Pru, leave it be, she’s dead and shit. But a mother always conveniently knows, you know?
There’s also a Praying Indian named Peter Church, hired by James to probably help distract the Puritans and maybe talk to the Nipmuk. Peter is a Quaker, and there’s, like, beef and stuff between the Bostonian Puritans and the Quakers, because history.
This story could be in any time or place, which is a mark of bad historical fiction. Instead of really getting to the heart of the time period, Wallace just uses random historical words and markers as placeholders for truly understanding the time period.
James, at one point, says that a man acts like he has “a blunderbuss up his bunghole.” I mean, score one for Googling 17th century weapons, Wallace, but come on.
The writing is inconsistent and unconvincing. It’s like an ill-fitting tux. I get the look you’re going for, but it doesn’t gel. The Puritan characters call one another Master, Goodman and Goodwife because, you know, they’re Puritans and Christian names are a no-no.
Except Wallace often forgets that they call each other by formal titles, and the Puritan characters often address one another by their Christian names. Wallace makes the same mistake with Peter as well. Peter only says thee and thou except when he doesn’t. It’s infuriatingly sloppy.
To boot, it’s supposed to be a thriller full of mystery, suspense and action. But the plot is predictable. Blah, blah, Prudence’s motherly intuition is right. Blah, blah, James’s hunch about certain characters is dead-on. Guess what happens between the really hot, devil-may-care spy and the surprisingly self-sufficient Puritan babe, even though they, like, totally have nothing in common?
The characters are wooden and one-dimensional, and I suspect that Wallace is a neckbeard-y men’s rights activist. James makes plenty of comments about women being gossips. He quips that marriage is a fate worse than death. At one point, James even makes out with a 16-year-old servant girl in a scene that is as unconvincing in the description of James brushing her inner thigh as it is creepy. Again: She’s 16. Those were different times, eh?
Wallace, at the very least, knows how to infuriate his readers by writing vague things like, “[James]’d vowed before leaving English soil that he would return in triumph, take the prize that was waiting for him in London.” Only 10 pages later, he reveals that the prize in question is a position as Chancellor of Agents. It’s a weirdly ineffective way to build suspense, and it focuses on the wrong details.
Wallace also has this habit of tacking on information—secret familial relations, unexpected character motivations and characters having unexpected talents that conveniently help move along the scene at hand. These revelations happen frequently enough that it seems too much like a lazy, “Well, shit, I have to fill this plothole and quick!” kind of writing rather than well thought out plotlines that make you say, “I should have seen that coming.”
One thing I absolutely should have seen coming is how bad this book was. I should probably go dig my Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster out of storage and find a place for it in my bedroom.